Watched #24
There was once a time when telly tried to standardise how everything appeared. I don’t mean by giving everyone the same hairstyle. I’m talking about something far more boring. I’m talking about how it treated footage that came from disparate sources, squidging it and colouring it so it all looked the same. On the occasions a documentary was forced to utilise something that had been caught on home video, it would apologetically hang a caption over it.

But some time recently that stopped being an issue, and now you’ll find shows made up of back-to-back 144p resolution YouTube video. In some cases, the variance in stock has become positively fetishised. That was certainly the case with Storyville‘s screening of the 2013 feature-length documentary, The Battle of the Sexes (BBC4 Sunday, 9pm), with cine film trims rattling away between clips, conferring a sense of authenticity upon them. The unwholesome greenness of the NTSC footage had a similar effect. Here we were, way back when.

In 1973, in fact, when Billie Jean King consented to play Bobby Riggs, the man who, in 1939, bet on himself to win the triple at Wimbledon and then did. By the 1970s he’d become a kind of John McCririck figure, referring to himself in the third person and chuckling as he took potshots against women’s rights. At no point did he ever seem to possess any conviction in being a chauvinist, it was more he found it a gloriously funny way of appearing contrary and – more importantly – courting attention.

But this was in a time when Billie Jean King was only considered to be pursuing her tennis career because “as yet [Larry has] not put his foot down about [his wife’s] future”. An age when she (and eight other players) were excommunicated from the United States Tennis Association for setting up the first ever professional women’s tennis tour. And when Billie Jean or Margaret Court would have to smile nicely while being asked, “What’s it like to be a spinster on the tennis court?”

Riggs’ huckstering had to stop.

The match between him  and King – a 55-year-old man vs a 29-year-old woman -became the most watched tennis encounter of all time. I’d never heard of it before, but as the lime-hued, 525-lined footage revealed, even John Wayne was there. Alas, on this stage the mix and match approach to film-making finally got under my skin. You didn’t need Hawk-Eye to spot the bits of newly shot fare dropped in between the perfectly serviceable original video of the game. Suddenly there was Billie Jean’s racket in crisp close-up, or the back of Bobby’s head. Coughs of unreality, interrupting the flow. For no real reason.

But there’s me criticising a terrific documentary on the tiniest of details. Like moaning about the ball boy’s posture during a Centre Court final. So let’s cut to the good new which is – SPOILER! – King proved victorious. However, with tennis still being the only sport wherein both genders are now paid equally, I imagine she would say she still hasn’t really won.

Film and video nestled nicely together in a repeat of The New Statesman (ITV Sunday, 10.30pm) as tribute to Rik Mayall. How glorious to begin a sitcom with a grainy film-stocky sweep across the Yorkshire countryside. As Alan B’stard, Mayall feels apiece with the Cameron government; the big hair and the good, gesturing, fist-clenched left arm, punching home the rhetoric. Other bits were pure 1987, including Alan Hawkshaw’s obviously synthesised music and this comment from our antihero: “A whole Jeffrey?” says B’stard. “That’s £2000!” Applause.  But what a treat to recall Mayall at his most majestic. And the time he shared comedy scenes with Peter Sallis.

When I started up this website again – such a day! – and before I hit upon the not-so-high concept of just reviewing some TV shows each week, I lurched it into first gear with a something about Changing Rooms. A programme as influential on others in its genre as any Buffy or Broadchurch. The concept of eeking out jeopardy from the undertaking of home improvements has been a prevalent one on TV ever since. And now one of the big beasts returns to the plain; Linda Barker who hosts the undynamically titled Brand New House for 5K (Channel 5 Wednesday, 8pm).  It’s the same old, but none the worse for that… Actually, that’s not fair. There is a slight tweak. In a knowing conceit, a lot of weight is assigned to the fact  the £5k budget has genuinely been supplied by the homeowners, and nothing is blagged for free in that usual telly way.

And so off we go, with the scurrying and hurrying. Linda a little shrill, a little nervy (that loud laugh) but basically likeable. Often she’s her own disciple, as this week’s couple – Mervyn and Sam – lose  faith in her crazy-tiling plan for the kitchen. It worked out fine in the end though.

If there was one thing I particularly liked about the show, it was Linda’s rough relationship with her builder, the inexplicably nick-named ‘Pooch’. “I need him to be more resourceful,” she confided to camera while he moaned about the project’s lack of funding. In the end she went £33.95 over budget and everyone was basically happy. Except, in my imaginings, Graham Wynne who – I fantasise – was watching along at home, wondering why all the fuss, why it wasn’t him and then making for the door with an “Oh you!” roll of his eyes.

“This isn’t about the drones!” Of course it’s not. 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) is now two-thirds done, and there are rules that have to be adhered to. In addition to every episode having some talk about going “dark” and what “play” is available, this is also the point in every series where the current threat gets nicely wrapped up and a new B-story terror emerges. So Jack throws Margot out of a window in Dalston and then finally gets credit from all the governmental types who’ve been doubting him. “I’m safely in my office and I have you to thank,” says the president. Copy that! Now get on your phone again, Jack, and start running…


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